Leaving no child behind: 8 education ministers commit to foundational learning to transform learning for all

Sierra Leone organized the first ever Foundational Learning Exchange in Freetown last week, where representatives from 8 African countries shared their experiences, challenges and ambitions on the path to make learning a reality for all children.

February 13, 2023 by David Moinina Sengeh, Minister of Basic and Senior Secondary Education, Sierra Leone
4 minutes read
Young students in class at the KDEC Pre-Primary School Masorie.  Sierra Leone, January 2019  Credit: GPE/Ludovica Pellicioli
Young students in class at the KDEC Pre-Primary School Masorie, Sierra Leone. January 2019
Credit: GPE/Ludovica Pellicioli

Once you learn to read, you will be forever free,” the American abolitionist Frederick Douglass once said.

Many children in low- and middle-income countries around the world are not able to read with understanding or do basic mathematics, even after four years of primary school. These children are at risk of never being free.

In my own country, Sierra Leone, a 2021 study published by UNICEF/GPE/MBSSE reported that “the majority of learners in grades 2 and 4 are not able to comprehend the text they read.”

Regarding numeracy, the study revealed that only 33% of students can do two-digit additions and only 23% can do two-digit subtractions.

This foundational learning crisis has many causes, but among them is the fact that many children begin school without having benefited from any preprimary education. This is particularly the case for girls and marginalized children, whom we target through our Policy on Radical Inclusion in Schools.

But in addition, it is increasingly clear that the content of our syllabi and textbooks did not facilitate teaching at the right level or the application of ‘science of reading’ principles.

Teachers in these crucial foundational years did not necessarily teach with the specific goal of achieving critical learning outcomes and were not trained to do so.

Prioritizing foundational learning to transform our education system

For this and other reasons, the government of Sierra Leone, decided to prioritize “Foundations of Learning for All” in our 2022-2026 Partnership Compact, developed as our commitment as a partner country of the Global Partnership for Education (GPE).

The partnership compact is a statement of intent for a priority reform that a GPE partner country believes can unlock transformation throughout the whole education system.

It is led by governments and supported by development partners and other stakeholders represented in local education groups. It serves as a framework for support through GPE grants as well as a tool to facilitate alignment of other partners in the system.  

Our Partnership Compact aims to ensure that all students acquire foundational skills (reading fluently with comprehension, achieving fundamental mathematics competencies and developing resilient socio-emotional skills) by class 4 (P4).

These skills serve as the basis for mastering the 5Cs at the heart of our new curriculum: Comprehension, Computational Thinking, Critical Thinking, Creativity and Civics.

These are crucial areas, because the world of the 21st century requires graduates who are well-rounded and prepared for the jobs and societies of the future.  As expressed in Sierra Leone’s Partnership Compact, we will work towards the achievement of several outcomes, including ensuring that children enter primary school ready-to-learn.

But the crisis in foundational learning is not unique to my country.

The first Foundational Learning Exchange held in Sierra Leone on February 6 and 7, 2023
The first Foundational Learning Exchange was held in Sierra Leone on February 6 and 7, 2023
GPE/Ramya Vivekanandan

Building a growing movement

In terms of learning poverty (the inability to read and understand a simple text by age 10), in 2019 the World Bank estimated that 57% of children in low- and middle-income countries were ‘learning poor’.

By 2022, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, the rate had gone up to 70%. And in Africa, 9 out of 10 (90%) end-of-primary students are learning poor. This is unacceptable.

In recognition of the gravity of the situation, a coalition of partners mobilized during the 2022 Transforming Education Summit to produce a Commitment to Action on Foundational Learning. My country has been an enthusiastic signatory of this commitment from the onset, and during the summit in New York, we also organized a spotlight session on the topic alongside the World Bank and UNICEF.

I am delighted to say that this rallying cry has been increasingly taken up by many of our peers on the African continent.

Recognizing this momentum, the government of Sierra Leone convened last week in Freetown the first-ever Foundational Learning Exchange (FLEX).

Opened and championed by H.E. President Julius Maada Bio and closed by H.E. Vice President Mohamed Juldeh Jalloh, we were joined by ministers of education from Cote d’Ivoire, The Gambia, Ghana, Liberia and Nigeria (as well as Edo State), with virtual participation from our counterparts in Malawi and Rwanda. We shared our challenges, experiences and ambitions. We heard from partners, engaged in technical discussions and exchanged in small groups.

At the conclusion, we issued the Foundational Learning Exchange 2023 Ministerial Communiqué and thereby endorsed the Commitment to Action on Foundational Learning.

In so doing, we reaffirmed our dedication to transforming our education systems to meet the SDG 4 goals.

In Sierra Leone, we will work tirelessly to achieve the Foundations of Learning for All through our 2022-2026 Partnership Compact with GPE, mobilizing the support of the partnership behind our ambition.

And we will continue to champion this cause in the international dialogue, to ensure that all children everywhere have the reading, mathematics and resilient socio-emotional skills to be free, empowered, successful and engaged citizens of their communities, countries and globe.

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